After ranking as one of the Southeastern Conference's top units last year, the Commodore defense brings back nine starters and an array of talented returnees as it attempts to improve from a year ago.
In 2008, the Vanderbilt defense rose to the occasion, playing an instrumental role in the Commodores' 7-6 overall season. The opportunistic unit ranked among the finest Commodore defenses in years in virtually every statistical category, holding opponents to 19.6 points and 319.6 yards each game. Since 1975, only the highly regarded 1998 Commodore defense allowed fewer points. The Commodores also were consistent on defense, holding 12 of 13 opponents under 25 points.
Head Coach Bobby Johnson expects the defense to build on its success from the 2008 campaign.
"The defense played a huge role in our season last year," Johnson said. "On offense, we were young and inexperienced, and had some injuries so there were certain games when we depended on the defense to make a big play or stop a key drive. Those guys were successful on plenty of occasions.
"Our defense has to continue its improvement if we are going to succeed. We need to enter camp with an urgency on defense, an urgency that everybody needs to get better," the coach added.
The defense also was aggressive, posting 20 interceptions, the most since 1982. The interception total, along with 10 fumble recoveries, helped Vanderbilt rank among the national leaders in turnover margin.
While the entire interior line and linebacking corps return, the Commodores must replace a pair of key performers in the secondary: All-America cornerback D.J. Moore and co-captain Reshard Langford at safety. Both Moore and Langford are currently on NFL rosters.
"We lost some playmakers and great leaders, no doubt. Reshard was a tremendous player for us, a very dependent guy at safety. And DJ was quite simply one of the most natural football players I've ever coached, a guy that just was very instinctive," the coach said.
Johnson also expects to see several talented newcomers competing with Commodore upperclassmen for playing time during camp.
"I'm eager to see a lot of the young guys come in here and compete, and make a statement that they are ready to help this team now," Johnson said.
Here's a quick look at each position grouping on defense as the Commodores enter preseason camp:
With every key contributor from the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl squad back in uniform, the defensive line appears to be one of the strongest position groupings on the 2009 edition.
At tackle, the Commodores return three veterans coming off career years: senior Greg Billinger, redshirt junior Adam Smotherman and redshirt sophomore T.J. Greenstone. The dependable trio combined for nearly 100 total tackles, including 12.5 tackles for loss. This season, at least two redshirt freshmen, Rob Lohr and Colt Nichter, should move into the rotation to keep fresh bodies on the field. Two more redshirt freshmen, Taylor Loftley and John Burrow, spent their initial year on campus adding bulk and could compete for playing time.
The Commodores feature solid redshirt seniors Steven Stone and Broderick Stewart at end. Both Stone and Stewart shared the team high with five quarterback sacks last year, and Stewart is well within reach of becoming the team's all-time leading sack specialist.
Two all-conference performers, senior Patrick Benoist and redshirt sophomore Chris Marve, anchor a group that is consistently one of Vanderbilt's top units. A 2008 second team All-SEC selection and Lott Trophy preseason candidate, Benoist excelled at weakside linebacker as a junior, leading the team in tackles and also registering 6.5 tackles for loss. Marve proved to be a punishing tackler and led the conference with four forced fumbles in his first year of action at middle linebacker. The starter last year at strongside linebacker, junior John Stokes, also is back 100 percent after staying away from contact in the spring.
No Commodore players were more effective during Spring Practice than redshirt junior Nate Campbell and senior Brent Trice. Both could be in line for key roles this season with a strong camp.
The top returning defensive back, senior Myron Lewis, is an elite cornerback. Blessed with imposing size, Lewis comes off an outstanding junior season, having registered five interceptions, six defensed passes, nearly 80 tackles and five sacks and 76 tackles. Redshirt sophomore Jamie Graham and sophomore Casey Hayward should compete for a starting job across from Lewis. Hayward was a key contributor behind Moore last year and Graham showed plenty of potential in spring drills after switching from wide receiver. A number of first-year prospects, including Eric Samuels, Eddie Foster, Trey Wilson and Javon Marshall, are among the candidates to earn key reserve roles.
Redshirt senior Ryan Hamilton, voted by teammates as a defensive co-captain in April, has started 32 consecutive games at free safety and enters off a career year that included 104 tackles and four interceptions. Expected to fill Langford's absence at strong safety is sophomore Sean Richardson, hero of the Music City Bowl win. Redshirt senior Joel Caldwell also figures as an important contributor, with redshirt freshmen Micah Powell and Al Owens, and freshman Jay Fullam contending for playing roles.